Helping Students Find True Writing Mentors

What have you read that is like what you want to write?

I posed this question on an introductory survey to a group of creative writers. Most of them responded with a list of the genres in which they wanted to write — short stories, poems, blogs — but only a few of them named specific writers or titles. One student listed Whitman and Poe as writers whose work she admired. Another wrote about his contributions to an online Lord of the Rings fanfiction platform. But most of the answers were fairly generic — I want to write short stories. I want to write poems. I can’t think of anyone specific.

Their responses puzzled me. Kids who know what they want to be have seen others do the work they want to do. Kids who want to be doctors have had good experiences with doctors and seen inspiring doctors work magic in movies and books. Children who dream of teaching watch their own teachers and come home and play school. Kids who want to be vets have brought their cats and dogs to the vet and watched animal doctors treat their pets with love and respect. Here was a group of students who had signed up for creative writing, many of them hoping to pursue a career in writing, yet they were unable to name writers whose work they admired. They were unable to describe something they had read that is like what they want to write. Why was that?

I started to question the genre study I had lined up first — poetry. On one hand, while all creative writers should be exposed to poetry and poetry writing, I knew it wouldn’t satisfy the majority of the group. Based on their responses to the survey, I had a lot of short story writers, and a few students who were interested in sports writing. I had some seasoned writers and some not-so-experienced writers. How could I ignite a semester of writing, provide common writing experiences, and satisfy the diverse interests of all of these writers at once? And how could I introduce each of them to writers who would truly impact their own work?

The idea of backwards mentoring came to mind as I considered all of these questions. Instead of selecting a genre to study, finding mentor texts in that genre, and asking students to write something that is like the mentor texts, I decided to start with the writing on their hearts and minds and go in search of mentors that could help them write what they wanted to.

So, the first assignment of the semester went something like this: Write for a total of one hour. You can write in a notebook or type on a computer. You can write about whatever you want, whenever you want, in any genre you want. Bring this writing to class on Friday.

Here’s a sampling of what came in a few days later:

  • a lyrical story written from the point of view of a chair
  • an apostrophe poem, written to the state of Virginia
  • snippets of conversation between two characters
  • observational poetry written at an airport
  • a character sketch
  • the beginning of a short story
  • a journal entry written from the point of view of an Al-Qaeda pilot
  • a nonsensical short story about a man named Jacoby, the Mexican mafia, and a leprechaun
  • a definition of love
  • a series of poems and prose passages addressed to someone
  • a prose essay on evil

The following day, I asked students to fill out another survey. Through this survey I sought to understand the inspiration and decisions behind their writing. Some had specific inspiration — dreams, tv shows, airport characters — while others wrote without specific ideas in mind. Then it was my turn to do some work.

I read each student’s work several times and tried to assign it a genre. This was easier said than done. Many of the writing samples were unmistakably poetry or short stories, but some were hybrid genres that were more difficult to classify. For example, one student wrote an essay about evil that had a literary quality to it but also incorporated quotes from a book she is currently reading for pleasure. I did the best I could, fitting each writing sample into a loose category. Then I read their survey responses to learn more about the decisions behind their writing. Finally, I began to think about where I had seen similar writing.

My goal was to find 3-4 different mentor texts for each student writer. I chose mentor texts that fit one or more of the following criteria 1) resembles the genre in which the student has written 2) has a similar theme/topic 3) contains craft moves the student indicated he wants to learn about Here are some of the mentor text clusters I gave each student:

Maeve’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
In Blackwater Woods Mary Oliver Nature Writing; Poem
Oread H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) Nature Writing; Apostrophe Poem (in which poet addresses an absent person, thing, or idea)
I Stand Here Ironing Tillie Olsen Short Story; Monologue Writing; Strong Ending
“Feared Drowned” Sharon Olds Poem;  Apostrophe Poem; Vivid Details; Strong Ending

Collette’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
The Last Night of the World Ray Bradbury Strong Dialogue; Short Story; Dystopian
Harrison Bergeron Kurt Vonnegut Short Story; Dystopian
Excerpt from the City of Ashes Cassandra Clare Fiction; Writing with voice

Cassie’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
On Pain Kahlil Gibran Prose Poem Essay; Writing about big ideas/themes
On Death Kahlil Gibran Prose Poem Essay; Writing about big ideas/themes
Should Slut Be Retired Anna North Opinion Writing/Commentary; Writing about a text; incorporating quotes from a text
How Movies Can Change Our Minds John Guida Opinion Writing/Commentary; Writing about big themes

Taylor’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
Excerpt from the City of Ashes Cassandra Clare Fiction; Writing with voice; Revealing backstory
Montauck Sarah Kaye Spoken Word Poetry, Using repetition for effect
I Can’t Forget You Len Roberts Poem; Writing that is inspired by one’s environment

Bo’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
Excerpt Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin Fiction; Characterization; Limited Omniscient Narrator
Excerpt from Lord of the Rings Tolkien Characterization; Third Person Narration
Interview with John Gardner from The Paris Review The relationship between characterization and setting

Continuing with the theme of working backwards, the next day I gave each student her personalized cluster of texts, a cover sheet (containing the titles, authors, and rationales behind each mentor text) and instructions to read the mentor texts as readers first.

Over the next few days, students will:

  • do some informal research on these writers
  • learn more about the genre in which they set out to write from these genre examples
  • note craft moves in the mentor texts they want to try
  • learn how to exact craft moves from these mentor texts and bring them into their own work

As we move forward in this backwards study, I hope students will form stronger attachments to professional writers. I hope they will come to understand that they are descendants and contemporaries of other writers who are doing similar work. I hope they experience what it feels like to know another writer’s work intimately and to take part in a conversation and a pastime that is larger than themselves.

How do you help students find writers they admire? Please comment below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.


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